Bhutan to cut fossil fuel imports 70%, embrace electric cars

Nissan Leaf Bhutan photo
Video screen capture Nissan Media Center

Africa isn't the only continent where clean energy could leapfrog fossil fuels. In Asia too, where economic growth has brought major air quality and pollution issues, there are signs that a new paradigm could be emerging. From India's proposed 4000 megawatt solar power plant to China's efforts to curb smog, renewables, alternative fuel vehicles and energy efficiency are moving firmly into the mainstream.

The small, mountainous nation of Bhutan is getting in on the act too. The same country that has made headlines for measuring Gross National Happiness (there are some legitimate questions for how GNH is calculated) and aiming for 100% organic agriculture recently announcing a partnership with Nissan to supply electric vehicles (EVs) to government and taxi fleets, as well as electric vehicle chargers, as part of a broad scale effort to cut fossil fuel imports by a whopping 70%, eventually aiming to become a zero emissions nation.

There are a number of reasons why this is important, most notably because while Bhutan is a net exporter of hydroelectric energy, it also imports all of the gasoline and diesel used for transportation. Much like Richard Branson's recent efforts to encourage energy independence for island nations, a country like Bhutan serves to benefit disproportionately from cutting the cord from fossil fuels.

Here's how the press release from Nissan describes the opportunity:

The country currently only uses 5% of the clean power it produces, exporting the majority to India. But almost all of the revenue earned from selling electricity is spent on fuel imported from India to run the nation's existing vehicles, which number some 36,000 vehicles in Thimphu alone.

According to Sandy Dechert over at Cleantechnica, the government fleet and taxi purchases already contracted make up 10%-15% of the vehicles in Bhutan, and the taxi fleet alone would represent 3.5% of all the EVs Nissan has sold worldwide so far. So this is a significant announcement purely on a numbers basis. Dechert also notes that Bhutan's commitment to EVs offers a testing ground for EV performance at high elevations, where internal combustion engines face compromised propulsion, while battery electric vehicles may face challenges of their own—most notably steep terrain and extreme weather.

The other challenge, of course, is that Bhutan remains a relatively poor nation. Most citizens can't afford a vehicle of any type, and many have no access to electricity. (Although the economic benefits of reducing fuel imports could mark a shift in this regard.) Ultimately, though, initiatives like this serve as an important symbolic marker. When entire nations pin their development hopes firmly to clean tech, it sends a sign to the rest of the world as to where the future is headed. Especially if Bhutan gets serious about fixing cities too.

Bhutan's larger neighbors will no doubt be watching closely.

Tags: Activism | Electric Cars | Electric Vehicles | Renewable Energy